Being a parent is maddening. One minute your little angels are so adorable you’re overcome with gratitude for being lucky enough to have them.
The next, they’re possessed by demons, and you wish you could run away from home.
So how do you get the adorable kids to stick around longer?
The ones you not only love but like.
The ones who listen.
Here’s how I exorcised my kids’ bad behavior:
1. Catch Them Doing Something Right
My four year old’s manners are a work in progress. He burps and sometimes chews with his mouth open, even when visiting French grandma (yikes!).
But when he finishes eating, he asks to be excused (or the shorthand “I’m full”) then takes his plate to the kitchen. Suddenly I feel like such a good mom!
The first time he did this (after I asked him to), I lavished him with gratitude: “Wow, thank you so much. That’s so helpful! I love how well mannered you are!”
The hundredth time he’s done it, I still pour on the gratitude.
And I don’t expect him to stop this good habit anytime soon.
He’ll find a way to get my attention one way or the other. How refreshing when he can get it through gratitude rather than my correcting him.
Not that I don’t want to correct my kids. My two year old thinks it’s great fun to bite, scratch, and pinch me. I want to smack him but remind him to be friendly by saying, “Ami, mommy.”
When he caresses my arm instead of biting it or just snuggles with me like a non-sadist, I coo at him with pleasure the whole t1ime. “Ooh, that’s so nice. I love that! Thank you.”
And on and on, like the best broken record.
2. Choose Labels Carefully
If my son had a nickel for every time he heard “You don’t listen!” this summer, he’d be rich someday.
“All you two do is fight!” was a close second when his cousin visited. I even heard that one of them was going to jail.
But they didn’t hear it from me.
Now that I’ve seen the power of the Spouse-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) to inspire my Häagen-Dazs-scarfing husband to start juicing and buying supplements, I know that what I focus on increases.
So as a parent I’m careful to avoid labels that I don’t want to manifest. Instead, I turn to the Son-Fulfilling Prophecy.
When my four year old started hitting me and screaming at me at the top of his lungs, the SFP that came to me was “You’re my sweet boy.”
I became a detective, on the lookout for opportunities to catch him doing something right. I repeated my SFP gratefully anytime he was acting kind and even at random moments, whenever it crossed my mind.
He doesn’t hit me anymore.
Cherished For Life Weekend
3. Ask Not What You Can Do for Them
At a swamp tour in Louisiana, the guide asked which three little words are the most important for animal parents. It wasn’t “I love you” but “Get out now.”
Whether you’re an alligator or a nutria, your job as a parent is to empower your offspring to be independent so they have the skills to survive in the wild.
Accordingly, I’m an alligator mom. Just as I generally avoid doing things my husband could do for himself, like finding his wallet or choosing his wardrobe, I try not to do for my kids what they could do for themselves.
It doesn’t always go over well with the four year old, who gets upset when I fail to obey him. “But I said please, so I don’t have to do it myself!” he objects indignantly.
And I don’t have to take the bait, even though my default reaction is to stop what I’m doing and jump up to get the water he asked for. Otherwise, I’m afraid he’ll get dehydrated playing out in the Miami heat. But I keep the cups and water filter within his reach and trust that he can get a drink when he’s thirsty.
I’m not religious about it—if I’m up when he needs a napkin, I grab one for him—but if I start feeling like his slave, that’s my cue to say “I can’t.”
I don’t want to resent my cherub! Or for everything I do for him to cost me self-care.
(I hope to report success saying “I can’t” in the butt-wiping department very soon.)
4. Stop the Mom, Mom, Mommmmmm!
“Mommy, I don’t want to take a nap.”
“Yes, but it’s nap time.”
“Mommy, I don’t want to take a nap.”
“I know, but you need energy to play this afternoon.”
“Mommy, I don’t want to take a nap.”
My four year old’s powers of argumentation far exceed mine, and I will never prevail in this conversation.
So the magical phrase I reach for is “I hear you.”
When I respond with an objection instead, it lands as if I’m not hearing, much less validating, what he has to say.
When I simply say “I hear you,” there’s no need for him to keep repeating himself.
For example, if he wants me to push him on the swing but I have to get dinner on the table before disaster strikes, I say, “I can’t. I need to make dinner.”
He objects, “But I want you to swing me!”
Rather than repeat my apparently hollow argument, I say, “I hear you. And I can’t.”
No but’s about it!
There’s no arguing with that.
5. Encourage Them to Take Initiative
The controlling mom. The helicopter mom. The micromanaging mom.
Whatever you want to call her, if you’ve ever gone to a playground, you know what I’m talking about.
If you find yourself wanting to leave the park early, it’s probably because Micromanaging Mom is there.
She’s the one whose imploring shouts cut through the comparatively peaceful cacophony of children’s screams:
“Don’t take your shoes off!” “Don’t get your dress dirty!” “Don’t slide headfirst!” “Don’t yell!”
“Don’t, don’t, don’t!”
It’s exhausting just being near her. It must be exhausting for her and for the kid too. I wonder how her child would ever know how to behave without her.
I’m not above being controlling myself. I can bark orders at my kids like the best of ’em. Isn’t it my job as a parent to control them?
Maybe. But now that I’ve relinquished inappropriate control in my marriage, I strive to do the same as a parent.
I don’t have to micromanage or solve my children’s disputes for them. When my niece comes screaming to me about how her cousin has wronged her, I dispassionately ask, “Do you need time apart?”
“No.” (I have yet to get a different answer.)
Well, that was easy. And they have the opportunity to learn to navigate interpersonal conflicts themselves.
Not that it’s like Lord of the Flies over here. If they don’t resolve the conflict, which is usually over a toy, rather than presuming to know who started it or vilifying the older child by default, I remove the offending toy so it gets a timeout. I know it sounds mean by grandma standards—as she reminds me—but it’s good incentive for them to get along (which means I get to use my SFP “You’re so good at sharing!”).
One magical phrase has been particularly powerful in helping me to relinquish inappropriate (or unnecessary) control as a parent: “Whatever you think.”
My older son craves my approval and often asks permission before doing something, such as “Can I wear my Crocs in the water?”
“Whatever you think” is a quick way to empower him to make his own decisions instead of always having to rely on mommy to think for him.
6. Play More
I don’t have a chance of pulling off any of this if I don’t put my own oxygen mask on first. I do that through self-care, which gives me the reserves to be my best self as a mom and to model the behavior I want my children to emulate.
Of course, getting any alone time—much less three things that delight me every day—is easier said than done as a mom.
One way around that challenge is to find opportunities for self-care with my children.
Today we made a self-care box, where I wrote down fun activities they brainstormed on pieces of paper they cut out and folded. After our nap time, they each get to pick something for us to do.
We often go for a bike ride, sit down for tea time, or have a dance party where we (well, I) jump up on the sofa and belt out some Lady Gaga: “Cutie pie, cutie pie…”
I’m glad I’m fact checking because I had no idea the actual lyrics are “Can’t read my…” All I hear—and call them—is “cutie pie” when I’m making myself deliriously happy alongside my boys.
Fortunately, play comes easily at their age. All I have to do is join in—as long as I leave controlling mom behind. This is their time.
It’s mine too, if my perspective allows. Ideally, I like to have special time with each child, which I incorporate into their routine, just like I schedule my own self-care for the day. (I save blessed TV time for the witching hour so I can make dinner in peace, which is a manner of self-care for us both.)
If it feels like a chore that I have to get over with, then special time isn’t very special.
But if I can find gratitude that I get to spend this time with them, I am so happy to be around these little rascals.
These are just a handful of the ways I implement the 6 Intimacy Skills™ as a parent. How do you practice gratitude, respect, relinquishing control, or self-care with your kids? Or otherwise curb their difficult behavior?
Please share below.